September is World Alzheimer’s Month, a time to recognize the importance of diagnosing this serious disease as early as possible. After all, one of the biggest worries for Americans as they age is cognitive decline. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that about 5.7 million Americans live with the disease as of 2018. New research on how to combat cognitive decline comes out relatively often. However, one potential factor getting more attention in recent years is the connection between Alzheimer’s and hearing loss.
Alzheimer’s is one of the most common types of dementia. It affects the brain in different ways, including memory and language, and it decreases quality of life as it progresses. While mild cognitive impairment can be treated and slowed if caught early, there’s no cure once it develops into Alzheimer’s. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, but also factors in to other dangerous health issues.
Hearing is an important sense to understand the world around you. It allows you to communicate with others, keep your balance, and perceive moving objects around you. If your hearing is not working properly, your brain might not be able to perceive your environment.
We can see signs of cognitive disconnect in the symptoms of both Alzheimer’s and hearing loss. As hearing loss progresses, you might start struggling with cognitive confusion, reduced communication, and isolation. This connects to Alzheimer’s disease and its impaired memory, reduced language comprehension, and social disorientation and paranoia.
Because the symptoms are so similar, hearing loss and dementia (and other cognitive issues) can be confused for each other by well-meaning loved ones. For instance, a grandmother asking her son-in-law to repeat his question could be hand-waved as her mind struggling to process the conversation. In reality, she’s losing her hearing; both her and her family don’t know the actual problem could be easily treated.
On the other hand, a grandfather with mild cognitive impairment might have his dissociation confused for hearing loss. If he had gotten his hearing checked and it came back clear, his actual cognitive impairment could be brought to light before it develops into Alzheimer’s. When it comes to preventative health care for Alzheimer’s, routine hearing tests are crucial.
Many have wondered if Alzheimer’s and hearing loss are directly related. Could hearing loss cause Alzheimer’s? In a landmark study by Johns Hopkins University, otologist and epidemiologist Dr. Frank Lin found the risk for cognitive disorders (like dementia and Alzheimer’s) increased by 20% with every 10 decibels of hearing loss the subjects experienced. On average, older adults in the study who had hearing loss also developed a significant cognitive impairment about three years sooner than those with normal hearing. While that could mean hearing loss and dementia have the same sources, it’s also possible that the intense neurological stress from hearing loss contributes to the development of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.
While further research is being done on the connection between Alzheimer’s and hearing loss, Dr. Lin does stress the need to keep your hearing strong regardless. “Our results show that hearing loss should not be considered an inconsequential part of aging,” says Lin, “because it may come with some serious long-term consequences to healthy brain functioning.”
It’s safe to say when it comes to keeping your mind sharp as you get older, taking a more comprehensive approach to wellness (including protecting your hearing) can only help.
Can hearing aids help cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s? Check out MDHearingAids’ special report “Hearings Aids, Alzheimer’s, and Dementia” today!